Letters to the editor

Hillary’s Choices

Caitlin Flanagan makes it clear that she finds Hillary Clinton inadequate as a woman (“No Girlfriend of Mine,” November Atlantic), but Flanagan’s ideas about women—e.g., they are nurturers who speak fluently about panty hose—appear rather rigid. Her real gripe seems to be that she does not find Senator Clinton feminine enough, which is an old trope by now. Senator Clinton’s silence during the Lewinsky affair was not complicity: by choosing not to excoriate her adulterous husband publicly, she demonstrated that she values the privacy of the home. I have a hard time believing that makes her a lesser woman.

Barry Abrams
New York, N.Y.

Caitlin Flanagan replies:

Hillary wasn’t silent during the Monica Lewinsky episode; she publicly and loudly blamed the incident on the vast right-wing conspiracy, thus attempting to make a liar—or worse—of a young woman everyone in the world knew was telling the truth. Hillary did what she has always done when Bill has been caught with his pants unzipped: fought to make the woman involved look crazy or stupid or vindictive. Vote for Hillary if you want to; if she ends up as the Democratic nominee, I probably will as well. But don’t try to sell those tired lies about her private life; they only serve to hurt women.

The Genetics of Goodness

In “The Selfless Gene” (October Atlantic), Olivia Judson takes a step in the right direction, but the question goes much further. At present, two of my students are in India, living with and learning about urban slum children and impoverished village children. Within the limits of their resources, they have given tangible help to people in need, while putting their own health at risk. To me, they are heroes, equivalent to those who join the armed services to defend the nation. “Kin selection” may explain altruism that protects kin, and “parochial altruism” may explain altruism that protects a society or an in-group. Both fail to explain the altruism exhibited by these students. In my life, I have witnessed (directly and through the media) thousands of altruistic efforts like these, and the historical record multiplies the number many times. I’m not sure such altruism toward out-group members can be reconciled with evolutionary theory, though I fully accept the reality of evolution. Yet we should not try to keep the theory tidy by ignoring or diminishing heroic altruism that reaches far outside the welfare of the in-group.

Donald Attwood
Professor of Anthropology
McGill University
Hudson, Quebec

In her search for “The Selfless Gene,” Olivia Judson fails to mention that in order for humans to develop an inclination to be generous, even toward non-kin, no gene is required. Humans and other primates are social, and their societies have cultures, which embody and pass on the successful (or, at any rate, nonfatal) behaviors of their members. Judson cites the example of a group of baboons that conveyed to newcomers their relatively laid-back standards over a period of 10 years. She notes that 3-year-old human children will learn and enforce the standards of the group. When animals can learn successful behaviors and pass them on to members of their group, then what we have is not Darwinian evolution—evolution through random genetic change—but Lamarckian evolution—inheritance of acquired characteristics. Because humans evolve primarily by passing on what they learn to the next generation, we are freed from the glacial pace of evolution through random genetic change. Judson’s own evidence in the examples cited above argues for a Lamarckian evolution of generosity.

Thomas M. Thurston
Oakland, Calif.

Olivia Judson replies:

Thomas Thurston is right in saying that culture can be an important evolutionary force in and of itself. However, he misses the more general point: namely, that in order for culture to evolve, the underlying substrate—the brain—must evolve the capacity both for learning and for a wide behavioral repertoire. The basis of this is genetic. Therefore, for a full understanding of the evolution of human culture, we must also understand the evolution of the brain. I agree with Donald Attwood that kin selection and parochial altruism do not supply a complete explanation for the full repertoire of behaviors that we see today; however, they provide useful frameworks for thinking about how altruistic tendencies may have begun to evolve. One aspect of the flexibility of human nature—which is, to my mind, its most important attribute—is that once the capacity for a behavior evolves, its expression is bound to vary widely.

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